Globally renowned as a clarinet virtuoso and klezmer maverick, David Krakauer joined the extended National Sawdust family initially through his bond with the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, director of the NS house label VIA Records, who collaborated with the clarinetist on numerous occasions as a member of the Kronos Quartet. Krakauer has presented several striking projects at National Sawdust, including Ancestral Groove, his electroacoustic quintet, and Breath & Hammer, his duo with the South African pianist-composer Kathleen Tagg.
Now, Krakauer is serving as one of the curators for National Sawdust’s new Season 3, which is thematically bound by a common thread: “Origins.” Reached by telephone recently while touring Australia, Krakauer discussed his own artistic and cultural journey, the artists and programs he’ll oversee at National Sawdust, and the benefit concert for the ACLU and NYCLU he’ll present with his klezmer-funk dance band Abraham Inc. and guests on Sept. 24 at Symphony Space.
You’re among the curators involved in Season 3 at National Sawdust, which is unified under the collective theme of “Origins.” When you were first presented with that concept, what did you make of it?
I thought about going back to one’s roots, and exploring one’s cultural heritage. And of course, that was for me this great epiphany. As a kid, I had an education in jazz and classical music at the same time. Through my teens, I was at the High School of Music & Art, and I was playing with Anthony Coleman in his band. We were doing jazz repertoire way before Wynton [Marsalis] – we were doing Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington and Earl Hines, all the way up to Thelonious Monk – who was still alive at that point in the early ’70s – plus original compositions of Anthony’s… Anthony’s compositions had a kind of free-jazz feel. And then we would go down to Ornette Coleman’s loft on Prince Street and hear Ornette play. It was an amazing, amazing time.
And then in my early twenties, I had a crisis of confidence: I thought, I don’t know whether I can find an original voice in jazz. So I stopped playing jazz for 10 years, because I just didn’t feel like I could find my place. But then in my early thirties, I was searching for something, and through a series of chance meetings and coincidences, I met people who were doing klezmer music.
Prior to that, when I was in my mid-twenties, I didn’t really think that that was what I wanted to do – I wanted to do some form of a theatrical avant-garde music, but I wasn’t really finding my place there, either. And then suddenly in the late ’80s, the Berlin Wall was falling, Eastern Europe was opening up, there was glasnost around ’85. Philip Roth was coming out with this series, Writers from the Other Europe, so we were all reading Bruno Schulz and [Witold] Gombrowicz and Milan Kundera. This idea of Eastern European Jewish heritage started to become more interesting to me. I think a lot of people of Eastern European Jewish heritage started to reexamine that part of themselves.
Had that part of your heritage been part of your childhood? Or was your household more culturally assimilated?
My household was very, very assimilated. My late mother was a classical violinist, and she taught at the Mannes Prep and the Mannes Extension. My dad, who is still living, was studying singing, really an avid music lover. So I had music in the home, but it was more either classical music or musical theater – and there was a smattering of jazz, so as a kid I got curious. And then my first teacher was a guy named Joel Press, who is still living in Boston. He had grown up with a lot of the great jazz players… he would make statements like, “If you never heard Charlie Parker live, you never heard Charlie Parker.” He was incredible, and he got me into jazz initially. So my home was very assimilated; I felt very much like an American, but still had a strong sense of Jewish identity.
So you were introduced later in life to aspects of your culture that had not been present when you were growing up.
Yeah. I mean, I had a bar mitzvah, I learned some basic things about Judaism, but I really didn’t know that much. And then when I started playing klezmer music… before I started playing with the Klezmatics I was playing in this kind of smaller, more modest band, and we were going out and playing in Jewish community centers, old age homes, and stuff like that. And my thought was, I have this thriving chamber music career, a classical career, and I’ll just do this for fun, for my own edification, and to just get closer to my Jewishness.
And then suddenly, there were people just slightly older than me, in their mid-thirties or early forties, speaking Yiddish. I’d thought only very religious Hassidic Jews spoke Yiddish, and then suddenly it was these children of garment workers who kept that alive in their kids, who didn’t totally assimilate, who kept the Yiddishkeit alive. That was really an amazing revelation. And then a few months after I started playing klezmer music, the Klezmatics heard about me, and I started playing with them. We started being present at these klezmer camps – there was this KlezKamp up in the Catskills, and we were playing there and teaching a little bit. It was so new to me that I was also learning, meeting older Jewish people and learning stories.
So I think what happened is, I started embarking on this kind of great Jewish journey, and learning about being Jewish – not in a “book” way at all, but in a very organic way, just meeting people and hanging out, hearing things and having experiences. That became my second Jewish education, after my bar mitzvah: getting into playing this music.
There was this moment where in jazz I had had that kind of crisis of confidence; now, I had this moment where I said, now I actually have an opportunity to find something original, take everything I had done in jazz, all the things that I had learned, and bring that to the music of my cultural heritage. So through my work with the Klezmatics and, after I left the Klezmatics in the mid-’90s, though my work with my own bands, I started to find my own sound and my own style, mixing in all these other influences but retaining the core feeling of klezmer. So that was kind of my goal and my quest, and that’s what I’ve done, basically, since then.
In 1992 I went to Krakow. At that time, Krakow was really just emerging from the communist times, so there weren’t the Schindler’s List tours; there weren’t these little cafés where people played fake Jewish music for the tourists. It’s a crazy thing there in Krakow: On the one hand, the city has revitalized in this beautiful way – and there is this kind of kitschy, touristy side, which is sort of annoying, but it also comes with the whole sort of rebirth of that town, with all of these cool clubs and great places. It’s part of the package. But the great thing is the annual Jewish Culture Festival, which has always brought over great musicians primarily from the United States, but also top European bands who were doing interesting things – and doing living things in Jewish music of many different kinds.
Going there in 1992, there was a grim side to Krakow, which was really interesting to see. When I played for that audience, still a member of the Klezmatics, I was introduced to the public, and I said to the people, “My name is David Krakauer… welcome to my city.” It was an amazing moment, because I remembered reading articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was a kid back in the mid-’60s and thinking, I’ll never go to the city of my name, because it’s behind the Iron Curtain. So that was incredible: to sort of almost reclaim that place.
In the early ’90s, John Zorn asked me to do his piece Kristallnacht, and after that Zorn asked me to do the first record in the Radical Jewish Culture series on his brand new label, Tzadik. So that was a great honor, to be able to help Zorn launch that concept and launch that label in that way. And then in 1996, I recorded The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind of Osvaldo Golijov with Kronos, so that was a very, very important moment in my career. All of these different things – and then leaving the Klezmatics, starting my own band, which was called Klezmer Madness and is now called Ancestral Groove.
Let’s talk about the artists and events you’ll be bringing to National Sawdust this season. Alicia Svigals is doing one and Yoshie Fruchter is doing another, and then I’m bringing Ancestral Groove for the “Origins” series. I had the immense pleasure to launch the project that I do with my partner, Kathleen Tagg, Breath & Hammer, at the FERUS Festival at Sawdust a couple of years ago. That was a great opportunity for us to use video, so having the incredible facilities and the great screen, that was just amazing.
What was it about Alicia and Yoshie that made you select them for the “Origins” season?
I consider Alicia to be one of the great, great klezmer musicians and innovative musicians around. She certainly is, for my money, the greatest living klezmer violinist, with an amazing, distinctive sound. So I thought that would be incredible. And then, Yoshie, I actually met him 10 years ago – he was my student at the Carnegie Hall workshop that I was teaching along with some other wonderful colleagues in the klezmer world. Yoshie is a tremendous talent, an incredible guitar player, and leads some really amazing bands. He’s dealing with these questions of cultural identity and looking at them through the lens of being a 21st-century person — as I do the same thing, and Alicia the same thing.
For us to take a traditional music like klezmer, or folk music or Hassidic music, and just perform it note-for-note like some old record would really not be very interesting or compelling. There are people who do those kinds of projects; I think of them like historical performance, playing Mozart or Beethoven on period instruments. And hey, I think that’s great, but for me it would be a nightmare to do note-for-note copies of old 1920s records. That wouldn’t be my thing at all. And as I was describing, this whole journey that I did through jazz, through improvising, abandoning it, coming back: this is a whole journey that I’ve been on. So that’s why it was interesting to have these different people doing their takes on the music.
It seems to me, too, that the idea of “origins” doesn’t only apply to a kind of purist view of geography or culture. Every individual also has her or his own personal origin, and the fact that your own path incorporates these disparate sounds and influences actually seems very genuine and honest.
This all of course seems very natural to me, as well. I think it would actually be, for me personally, dishonest to do the other thing – to say I came from some little shtetl in Poland. My music reflects a whole story. It is European music that went to the United States, lived a life there – through people like me, like the Klezmatics, like Alicia, like Yoshie, like many people – and then comes back to Europe, goes around the world. It tells a story.
Because many immigrant people came to the United States and made recordings, there was a vibrant Yiddish theater scene in New York, so cities like New York and Philadelphia, primarily, were really big centers for klezmer music to sort of have this other life. But it was kind of a strange life, because it was broken by assimilation – interrupted, let’s say – and retaken with this moment in the ’80s of a resurgence of people’s feelings of identity.
The other thing I want to say… there’s so many things with nationalism, and people going, I’m a this or I’m a that – or, of course, the most extreme, horrible example, white supremacists. My vibe has always been that we are proud of our origins, and that is a metaphor to invite other people to be proud of their origins. My music is not a fortress with closed doors, or waving a flag. It’s quite the opposite; it’s a home with an open door, and an open heart. It’s showing people: here, I’ve embraced my cultural origins, my cultural heritage, and this is something that we should all do, and we should all be proud of. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.
Ever since I started playing Jewish music in Europe, it was embraced, but in a very particular way, because Jews were always the multicultural Europeans before the Second World War. After the Holocaust and after everything went down, when American Jews come back to Europe playing that music without waving a flag, without getting up on a soapbox, it becomes a statement for multiculturalism. And with the rise of neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists, that’s a very, very important message.
Let’s talk about the work you’re doing now on behalf of the ACLU and the NYCLU. You first performed to raise funds for those organizations in April. What prompted that?
Quite simply, the “Muslim ban.” Kathleen and I were together when that news came in, and we were so appalled and angry that we just said, okay, let’s go with this feeling right now. We immediately emailed Symphony Space and said, We want to do something. Andrew Byrne [Symphony Space artistic director] got together with us, and we said, We’ll do a small one at the Thalia [Theater] as a little pilot program. We had an incredible cast of performers, so it was not such a little pilot: Alicia Svigals was on board, and Todd Reynolds, the amazing experimental violinist, and Sarah Caswell, the great jazz violinist. We had quite a crew of people – it was incredible. And then we said, we’re going to do one in the big hall. I contacted Abraham, Inc. – everybody said, we’re free September 24… let’s do it.
We were just so shocked and appalled about what this administration is trying to pull. Anybody who reads any history can see so many parallels to what Hitler did in 1933: the treatment of journalists, the use of this term “fake news,” it goes on and on and on. So we thought that we would go with the ACLU as a nonpartisan group that defends our Constitution and our laws, because that’s our last line of defense.
Table Pounding Music presents an ACLU/NYCLU Benefit with Abraham Inc. and Friends on Sept. 24 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Symphony Space; symphonyspace.org
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.